DALLAS - The young Dallas Stars began this season just hoping to make the playoffs and end a franchise-record post-season drought.
They can't let the cruel collapse in a Game 6 overtime loss take away what was accomplished in their first season under coach Lindy Ruff, and what is shaping up as a promising future.
"I trusted every one of them. We have a system to play and they know how to play it," Ruff said. "We've set our bar at a certain level now. Now we have to push above that. And that takes incredible work ethic. It is hard to get in the playoffs. You know that. I know that."
And now so do a bunch of 20-something players, including captain Jamie Benn, Cody Eakin and Alex Chiasson. Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin won't turn 20 until late next season and Stars scoring leader Tyler Seguin, traded to Dallas last summer after three playoff appearances and a Stanley Cup title with Boston, is only 22.
The Stars were only minutes from extending their first-round series against top-seeded Anaheim to a deciding Game 7. But the Ducks scored twice in the final 2:10 of regulation Sunday night before scoring the series-ending goal on the only shot in overtime.
"It's a tough one to swallow," said defenceman Trevor Daley, the only current Stars player who was also part of their 2008 playoff team. "You think you're going back to Anaheim. But it's a learning lesson. We learn from it. We learn as a team. ... There's a lot of young guys on this team that will be back next year."
Dallas overcame a 2-0 series deficit by winning Games 3 and 4 at home. After losing Game 5 in Anaheim, the Stars returned home and got an early breakaway goal from Daley, who had two goals and an assist in the finale.
The only time they trailed Game 6 was when Ducks forward Nick Bonino got a wrist shot past Kari Lehtonen only 2:47 into overtime—Bonino's second and the Ducks' third score in less than 5 minutes of ice time.
"It happened so fast, so it's a bit of a shock, but I'm proud of our guys," Benn said. "We battled hard all year. We battled hard to get into the playoffs and I thought we played a pretty good series against a pretty good team."
The Stars had missed the playoffs for the fifth season in a row when Jim Nill was hired as their new general manager a year ago. Nill had spent the previous 15 years as an assistant GM with the Detroit Red Wings, who this year extended the longest playoff streak in North American pro sports to 23 seasons before losing its first-round series against Boston in five games.
Nill replaced young Glen Gulutzan with grizzled veteran Ruff. The new GM then overhauled the Stars offence with a series of moves, including the trade with Boston to get Seguin and drafting Nichushkin 10th overall with his first pick for Dallas.
"I'll say it again, I was damn proud of the way they played. I was proud of the way they competed," Ruff said after the disappointing finish. "It's a fun team to coach. It really is. Embrace this, because we've got some good players that are pushing through. My job now is to make them understand how hard it is to repeat it and get better."
One of the biggest questions for the Stars heading into the off-season is the future of Rich Peverley, the forward who collapsed on the bench during a game March 8 because of an irregular heartbeat. The 31-year-old Peverley had surgery to correct the problem and has since skated with his teammates. He wants to play again, but may not know for a while if his health will allow him to do so.